John Devona never received this much attention before, Guys he grew up with in Kansas City are calling him on the phone. Classmates from Notre Dame are trying to get in touch with him. And when he walks down the corridors of the United Airline's corporate headquarters here, employes he doesn't know pause, give him a wink, and say, "Toothpaste, eh?"

Toothpaste?

For more than just the obvious reason, it's a good thing that Devona brushes his teeth. Because one January morning, he pulled out a new tube of toothpaste and a cents-off coupon fell out of the box. Devona, United's manager of passenger pricing, had an idea: airline-ticket coupons.

Devona offered the idea of using coupons to entice passengers to fly United's newly established Chicago-florida route, but management decidedthen that the idea "was too good to use for one little market," he said. "So they decided to save it for something better. Little did we know . . ."

The rest, of course, is history. United's mechanics struck the airline on March 31. Almost immediately, management began working on a sure-fire way to lure passengers back to the carrier once the strike was settled. Traditionally in the airline industry, planes fly practically empty during the first three weeks after a strike. Often it takes six months to boost passenger loads to their pre-strike level.

united management committed itself to the idea within a month after the strike began. Only 12 to 14 of nearly 3000 employes at the airline's headquarters close to O'hare Airport had a "working knowledge" of the project. "the rest were let in on a need-to-know basis," Devona said.

"I'm not trying to make this sound like it was some kind of clandestine affair. But after a while, we felt like Eisenhower before Normandy," he said. "We had the troops massed, and we were worried about leaks. We had a constant fear that the idea would leak and we would lose our surprise element with respect to our competition."

United's 50-percent-off coupon caught the competition with its flaps down.

At a "minimal" cost of between $40,000 and $50,000, United printed 3 million coupons. They were given to passengers flying between May 28 and June 17 and allowed them half-off fares to anywhere in the United States between July 1 and Dec. 15. United gave out about 2 1/2 million coupons. The airline reset its reservation record four times in one week.

the public's reception even surprised Devona who, at 34, has been with United longenough (10 years) to have come up with other exciting and profitable fare discount plans.

"My wife and I havea standing joke about this location discount store's sales: We say there's never a time when people think of air travel the same way. But with the coupon thing, people literally would call in to see what the catch was."

Devona grins when he relates second-hand and third-handstories about the lengths some people went to to get a half-fare coupon. Like the woman in Miami who paid $14 to fly to Fort Lauderdale for a coupon and came back to find a $20 ticket on her car. Or the pastor in 'hawaii who told his congregation that he was planning to take his family on a trip to the mainland, so when the collection plate was passed around, "any half-fare coupons would be greatly appreciated."

Devona has become a hero of sorts, although he is quick to share recognition with the dozen or so other employes involved in the project. "Good lord," he said in a tone that suggests "good lord" is the closest thing to an expletive he uses. "I didn't invent coupons." Besides, he added, "Once you come up with an idea, analyze it and present it at some point it ceases to be yours.

He hasn't received any fo rmal recognition yet, though colleagues have joked with him that the coupon plan either will "do a lot" for his career or cost him his job. (the final figures on how successful the idea was won't be in for another six months.) And he hasn't gotten a raise. I'm happy with my salary," Devona said, describing its level as "strictly middle management."

one could describe Devona's appearance and demeanor as middle management as well, if the term hadn't become so maligned. His dark hair is cut short in a style that lends itself more to a towel than a blow dryer. He talks a lot in the corporate "we." One afternoon last week, he wore a dark taupe suit, a beige shirt and a burgunday tie. One deviation from the middle-management image is that Devona drinks Jack Daniels instead of Scotch.

he even car pools from his home in Western Springs, a suburb 20 miles west of Chicago. Car pooling cuts down on his workday at the office, but more often than not Devona says he works at home at night after his 5-year old son and an 18-month-old daughter are asleep.

The coupon blitz is pretty much behind him, and now Devona is working on different projects, ones that he says "require more insight and ability than the coupon thing, but they're boring - like figuring out whether the Super Saver fare makes money."

"There is, however, a bit of unfinished business.

The morning after Devona presented the coupon idea to his boss, he walked back to his office and threw the toothpaste coupon in his desk drawer. "I'd really like to find that thing," he said. CAPTION: Picture, John Devona of United Airlines: Fellow employes wink and say, "Toothpaste, eh?"